Lieberman: Cybersecurity bill could wilt over summer

Wong Maye-E/AP

Senator says he is “less encouraged” and that floor debate on the bill could be pushed off until July.

“Legislative pessimism” is threatening to sink comprehensive cybersecurity legislation even as Senate leaders vow action, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said on Tuesday.

There was talk that the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which Lieberman cosponsored with other Homeland Security panel members and leaders of the Intelligence and Commerce committees, could be considered as soon as this month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Tuesday that he plans to move the bill “at the earliest possible date.”

But Lieberman now says he is “less encouraged” and that floor debate on the bill could be pushed off until July or beyond.

“If it’s not July, it’s not going to happen,” he said, adding that he is still optimistic that if the bill makes it to the floor in July, Congress will have time to iron out the wrinkles.

Lawmakers can’t give in to a broad sense that complicated issues like cybersecurity can’t be tackled in an election year, Lieberman said. “We have to fight legislative pessimism, but you can’t yield to it.”

The bill has been bogged down over disagreements between Democrats, who say government officials need more authority to require companies to protect certain critical networks, and Republicans, who say government regulation isn’t the answer. The act has also been criticized by civil-liberties groups that say it could undermine privacy.

But Lieberman said an intense pressure to bring a range of other bills to the floor also complicates the matter.

The Cybersecurity Act is backed by the White House, as well as Reid, who took to the floor on Tuesday to urge Republicans to start taking cyberthreats seriously.

“It is time for them to participate productively in the conversation, instead of just criticizing the current approach,” he said.

Reid didn’t mention the Republican-backed Secure IT Act, which would rely on voluntary measures and incentives, but he made it clear that he thinks Republicans haven’t offered a viable way to protect critical infrastructure like electric grids, water systems, or financial networks.

“The longer we argue over how to tackle this problem, the longer our power plants, financial systems, and water infrastructure go unprotected,” Reid said. “The question is not whether to act, but how quickly we can act.”

Lieberman said he has been encouraging a group of senators that includes Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to work out a compromise.

When questioned about the status of the compromise proposals, Kyl would not elaborate, saying simply that it’s an important issue that needs to be resolved.

Lieberman, meanwhile, said he believes the senators are making progress. While he said he is open to finding a “third way” to secure private networks, Lieberman reiterated the stance that government agencies need more authority.

“Government has to be able to say you’re not doing enough,” he said.